The Silence of Silents

Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.

She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.

Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.

There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.

I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.

I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.

Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.

Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.

Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.

It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.

The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.

That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.

That’s using silence for drama.

Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.

That book is The Prisoner: The Original Scripts – Volume 1 and Many Happy Returns is on Blu ray shiny disc.

Shut up

It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.

And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.

I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:

Choose life, eh?

Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.

The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.

It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.

I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.

Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.

Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.

I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.

Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.

I’ll shut up now. And get on with some writing.

Anytime you’re ready, I’ll sparkle

Angela says it was in the Lake District. Neither of us can remember the year. But I have a vivid, visual memory of standing in a secondhand bookshop with my hands shaking.

For there on a shelf that I could so easily have missed was Talking to a Stranger by John Hopkins. This is one of Britain’s most significant television dramas and here were the published scripts. I had no idea there was a book and for all I knew of the show, I hadn’t seen it.

It’s a series of four plays, also known as the Hopkins’ Quartet, and it’s the story of one weekend with a family. You can read or presumably watch any of the four and they are separate, they stand on their own, and they are exceptional.

But as well as my hands shaking when I found this, I also remember something else. This memory isn’t visual, it’s not as specific, it’s really more of a feeling. Yet it has the same punch to me because it was the moment in reading the fourth script that I understood.

Each play is set on this same weekend and is told from a different character’s perspective.

These days that’s known as the Rashomon format. There’s this film I’ve still never seen called Rashomon which tells the same story over and over from different views.

There are also a couple of rather joyous episodes of Leverage which do it. Most notably, there’s one written by John Rogers where all five of the regulars take turns to tell their version of the same crime. The episode is even called The Rashomon Job.

I relish that episode for its wit and chutzpah but its greatest moments are all when it shows us how each character sees the other four.

It’s funny, clever and satisfying but it is also a construct. You know the plot came first or at least it wasn’t initially about the characters, it was about the form.

Whereas this moment, this memory I have is how I felt reading the last Talking to a Stranger script and realising. Suddenly seeing why these four plays are being told this way. Seeing that the entire quartet was always building to the same thing. Realising whose story this really is. No trick, no gimmick, just the way this story had to be told.

I was telling someone about this today and found myself saying that this moment changed me.

It definitely contributed to my obsession with time in drama but I swear I was a different man after I read this.

I’ve had people change my mind – I do enjoy that – and I’ve had experiences that shaped how I see the world. But here were words on a page, words first broadcast when I was one year old, that affected who I am.

You’ll notice I said broadcast. I was going to say written but actually that’s part of why these plays are famous. For all their modern pace and the vivid characters, the production of Talking to a Stranger belongs to another time.

The four plays are different lengths, for instance. No fitting it to two hours with ad breaks. And while Hopkins famously wrote Z Cars episodes over weekends going from no idea to filmable script before Monday morning, he didn’t do that here. Instead, he was late.

I mean, really, really late.

I want to say that he delivered the scripts to the BBC a year after he was due to. That may be an exaggeration. What I’m sure of is that it was long enough that they were into the next year.

And apparently the BBC barely chased him. What I’ve heard is that they may have rung him up and asked how it’s going, old chap, but that was it.

I twitch at the idea of missing a deadline by months. I un-twitch at the notion of the scripts then being complete. No emails back and forth asking for a tenth rewrite to pass the time.

I’m also frightened to watch Talking with a Stranger.

Very many years ago, I did see the first play and it was everything it was supposed to be, it was everything the script was. Also it had a teenage Judi Dench. I don’t know why that surprises me: she must’ve been a teenager once, but there you go.

I’m telling you all this now because late one night this week, I found Talking to a Stranger on the BBC iPlayer. Some big rights issues must been settled recently because suddenly there is a huge amount of truly superb drama on there but I never imagined this would be.

I think I stared at the listing for a full minute, processing this.

I definitely decided not to watch right then. It was gone midnight, I’d done a 16-hour writing day, I want to be fully conscious to enjoy this.

And I am wondering what it will do to me. It might be easier to just go see the new Mission: Impossible film instead.

Maybe nothing is any good

I’m serious: maybe no writing or drama or art is actually any good. Maybe it’s just that some of it is more shiny, some of it is somehow more reflective and it catches the eye for a brief while.

The one book I simply will never dare re-read, for example, is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Because I read it when I was exactly at the right point in my teens to find it a tumultuous bellow of a book and some of the bruises it gave me have yet to disappear. Now that I’ve read it once and moreover am somewhat older than I was, though, I fear that it may be feel blunted if I read it again. I want to keep these bruises.

Not long ago I did re-read Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity and, god in heaven, he’s a schoolboy. Yet so was I when I first read it and perhaps consequently I did not notice characters, attitudes, situations and writing that now makes me wonder if the book is a joke. All I saw back then was the plot which, to be fair, still seems replete with deeply imaginative ideas.

So I definitely had to be a schoolboy in order to think Asimov is good. I think I might have to be a teenager to truly appreciate Plath again. In which case, I and who I am, how old I am, perhaps even where I am, makes the difference to me between a book being good or bad. Your mileage will vary but the same factors apply: I don’t think you can enjoy a Young Adult novel as much as if you were a Young Adult, for instance.

This week, a colleague told me that she doesn’t like Doctor Who. She wanted me, I think, to make a pitch for why I think it’s good but instead I just told her that it isn’t compulsory.

I gave her this example. Mindful of how there’s just been some football tournament thing, I said to her that she or anyone might well be able to tell me that this game or that is good. You can argue about the beauty of the beautiful game, you can tell me how you’ve held your breath in moments of action that are greater than any theatre could ever hope to achieve.

And so what? I’ll never know because I’ll never watch because it’s football.

I have a few mantras in life. One is that it’s better to be crew than passenger. Another is that the show comes first. But the third is my unstoppable certainty that everything, absolutely everything is interesting. Except football.

Yet if you do that telling me it’s a pinnacle of drama, I might want to take you out to the theatre a bit more but it won’t occur to me to doubt you.

So that means that the quality of football doesn’t matter. It can be wonderful or it can be dreadful, it’s all still rubbish to me.

If you’re thinking that says more about me than it does football, I completely agree and I think that’s actually the point.

For if the quality or not of a sport has no bearing on whether I’ll like it, so surely the reverse is true. Things I do think are good really just happen to be things I like.

As writers and creators, maybe we shouldn’t bother striving to be good, then. We should just write things that include things people like. A bit with a dog, for instance.

Except, as a writer, I long to say to you that all of this is utter bollocks. I yearn to say definitively that if you do good work it will reach people. Whether or not they happen to be the right age or in the right demographic, good work will reach them.

And I think I can make that argument.

That mention of a bit with a dog – I realise only after having typed it – is a quote from the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. And thinking of Shakey makes me think of this. That fella wrote Hamlet four hundred years ago and I’ll bet it was a hit with the teenagers of the day but it has lasted.It can’t connect with anything I do. It doesn’t depend on my being a Danish prince. Nothing Shakespeare could’ve put in as a crowd pleaser can work with me four centuries later.

Yet Hammy is one of my favourite plays.

Then the same should be true with Jane Austen. She wrote 200 years ago in a society I can’t imagine, in a world I cannot recognise. But her writing in the 18th and 19th Centuries has made me laugh aloud here in the 21st.

She’s also made me wince at her sometimes deft cruelty in describing characters such that one sentence brings them to vivid life.

That’s what I think works and lasts and connects. The ability of truly fine writers to see beyond the present-day trappings and dive so deeply into people that they also dive into us.

Something comes from Something

Previously on Self Distract… I am just after saying to you that nothing comes from nothing. If you don’t do anything then nothing happens and if you don’t show up, you don’t matter. You can call this many things ranging from harsh to obvious but it is also specific and practical. Yet there’s a vague and impractical companion argument which goes thisaway:

If you do anything, something happens.

Now, I may need to underline the vagueness there as I think – possibly I’m fooling myself but give me this – that it looks vague in a kind of all-encompassing way. That it’s vague but actually deep.

The vagueness I’m striving for, though, isn’t even that good and doesn’t even make that much sense.

So yes, if I say that when you write nothing, bugger-all happens, it follows that when you write something, at least perhaps something-all will happen. I’m still sounding as I mean you write X and X is a success. You show up at Y, that very well known networking party, and You are a success.

But what I really mean is this. If you do things, if you write things, if you help other people out, it’s like you stir up something in the air.

If you have no work on, if everything has been rejected and you slump into a paralysis, that’s where you stay. But if you manage to start something new, if you phone someone new or just do anything, then routinely other things start to come in, start to come along. This week, for instance, I took a punt and spent a day pursuing a piece of work I’d really like to do and that evening I got offered a completely unrelated commission.

Only, we’re in territory here that makes me uncomfortable. Saying that if you’re nice and if you keep busy, happiness will follow feels like astrology.

Quick story? I don’t mean to do this quite so automatically but if someone asks what star sign I am, I find I tell them that I am New Romantic. It used to be funny.

Then a friend told me she’s gay and it was clearly a difficult thing for her to say. She wasn’t out yet and I wanted her to know that I was conscious of the trust she was showing me, that I recognise the enormity of coming out but mostly that she needn’t be nervous, that she needn’t think it would change our friendship, that in the best meaning of the phrase, it didn’t matter. So she told me she’s lesbian and I replied that I’m Sagittarius.

We’re no longer such close friends because she’s convinced I’m into astrology.

Anyway.

If you do something and if you help other people, good things happen. I don’t do these somethings and I don’t this helping people in order to cause a karmic domino effect, I do somethings because I can’t resist and I help writers if I can because it’s brilliant to see people achieving what they strive for. And if even one pixel of that is in any way down to you, how can that be anything but fantastic?

This is another time when I’m telling you this because I’m trying to understand it. Talking to you always helps me focus, even if, okay, stop that, it may not seem like I’m terribly coherent. You always seem so nice and then you go giving me that look.

I don’t believe in fate, I don’t believe in karmic dominos, but I do believe that it’s better to do something and that it is always best to go to things. And when you do, I think that phrase about something stirring in the air is right.

Besides, the alternative is to just sit there, stewing in a paralysis, and I’m a freelance writer, I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime.

Nothing comes from nothing

Compare and contrast, would you? Earlier this year I worked at a media careers fair where certain schools had pulled out and refused to allow their students to attend. It wasn’t any complaint against the fair, it was something to do with the cost of getting them there and the staff time it was going to take up. Whatever. The key thing is that a handful of those students came anyway.

I don’t know if they lied to their teachers, I don’t know if they pulled a sickie, I just know that effectively they said screw the school, we need this. And they did something about what they needed.

No question: you know they’ll go far and you would hire them on the spot.

Then last night I was talking with some university writing students and they were great: I mean, they were funny and cheery and they’d come some distance to attend a Royal Television Society event. But they also told me about a problem they’d had which is that they’d been assigned to write substantial projects in groups and some of the other writers didn’t always show up.

Now, they were adamant that some of those writers had really good reasons to be absent but these were their friends they were talking about and they were nice about them.

I’m not.

You don’t show up, you don’t matter.

I’ve always believed that the show comes first. All that’s changed as I’ve got older is that I’m more careful which show I pick. Once you’ve agreed to do it, though, you’re doing it. That seems so obvious to me when in my case I’m being paid but these absent students have spent a lot of money to study at university so if money were the only factor, you’d expect them to be making the most of their investment.

Apparently the university knows as well as you do that some writers are going to let their colleagues down and actually that’s part of the teachable moment. And as one of the two I talked with described what she’d had to do, I did realise that she’d just learned a little about becoming a producer.

That’s great for her but it happened because she showed up.

I have no idea whether her writing is any good or not. But you do know that it’s better than the writing these absent writers failed to do.

My first broadcast writing

I may be overstating this. The first time you could ever have heard something I wrote be broadcast was 14 March 1987 on BBC2. It was in an episode of a show called Micro Live which was part of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project. I am not credited, but as it was live I can also know precisely where I was on that day from 18:25-18:55 or so. BBC Television Centre, which I wouldn’t come to think of as home until just shy of a decade later.

Micro Live that week featured the then-new idea of desktop publishing and at the time I was working for a firm that made one of these DTP systems. You’ve never heard of it. I’ve just sat here for twenty minutes trying to remember it. The world was not shaken by this firm, let’s leave it there.

Whereas it was shaken, according to Micro Live, by Apple. It’s weird now to see that episode and how it would’ve been the first time I’d ever come across a Mac. If one could only realise how integral to your work a box in the corner could become.

As for the other box in the corner, the television, well, I think I’ve left you waiting long enough. I can quote to you my entire contribution to that episode because it is just about exactly half a sentence long. Presenter Ian McNaught-Davis was supposed to say that Apple was the first computer company in publishing and no, excuse me, it wasn’t.

Everything he was going to say about what Apple actually did was true but it was far from accurate to say they were the first.

So now if you should manage to track down an obscure TV show from 31 years ago, you would be able to see and hear McNaught-Davis instead begin his speech with the words: “Of course there were computers in publishing before, but…”

What are the odds that you’d ever be able to check this? Remarkably high, as it happens, because it only requires you to click a couple of times.

For this week the BBC released every episode of Micro Live and all the other shows in the Computer Literacy project online. Every minute of it. Here’s my episode.

Excuse me while I remember being very young and rather nervous but adamant that the script be accurate. Not everything changes, then.

Against the grain

I want to offer an idea and see what you think. It’s mostly this: writing is like carpentry.

You’re already thinking about solid, robust construction and I imagine the word veneer isn’t far away from your mind. It would be great if you also thought about craft and skill and talent and art.

I want to think about the reader, though.

When you’re reading something, I offer that it’s like running your hand over a piece of food and specifically that it is like doing so against the grain.

Maybe it’s a little bumpy but certainly you catch your skin on the burrs and cuts and imperfections.

Then when you’ve finished reading, I think good writing should be like running your hand back across the wood and this time in the direction of the grain.

This time everything perfectly smooth.

No surprises and no cuts on the way back. As many cuts and scrapes and pains on the way forward.

It’s only a thought. And as well as suggesting that writing should be surprising until the reader looks back and sees how it makes sense, I’m also offering that writing needs to be that crafted and to look as if it isn’t at all.

Happy birthday, Susan Hare

Facebook has just told me that today is Susan Hare’s birthday. I didn’t get her anything but that’s less because I’m mean, more because she doesn’t exist.

She’s real, or at least she is to me, but there is no such person. Susan is an old and dear friend of mine, she’s just completely fictitious. A very, very long time ago I created her for a script that I liked very, very much but never went anywhere. Shortly afterwards I popped her into another script that never went anywhere. I’ve no complaints about my writing career but along the way you do create a lot of projects that fizzle out for one reason or another and Susan Hare is in many of mine.

I’m only now wondering if she’s bad luck.

I think initially I just really liked her name. I can’t remember the projects and certainly not the sequence but initially I thought I was just reusing the name and that there was no other connection. Susan Hare was definitely about 8 years old in one story, I’m certain she was in her 30s in another, and so on.

But after she’d been in – I’m guessing here – four completely different scripts, I realised that with just a teeny bit of effort, it could be the same person. That 8-year-old could conceivably have grown to be that 30-year-old. If that were so then this woman had lived a hell of a life and somehow that just made her more real to me. It made me like her enormously.

I wish I could remember what the idea was when I created a Facebook page for her. I know it was work but I’ve not a clue what it was for. I’ve also not a clue what the account password is so I can’t delete her. I’m slightly scared to look at her timeline in case she’s been living a life there without me.

I do remember this, though. I used her name when I was working on a magazine and this fictitious online woman had an impact on the real world. I mean, it’s a very small impact, but she had one.

I was features editor on a technology magazine called PC Direct and in a company that had two or three other titles covering similar topics. This was pre-internet but it was far from pre-online and all the magazines had various services and forums. Each time a new one launched, all the staff were asked to join in and chat so that readers could contact us and that there could be a lively discussion on there.

It was really quite hard to find anything to say, though. If you were supposed to discuss a topic your magazine had covered, well, probably you wrote it and certainly you read it so there wasn’t much else to add. If someone else’s article in some other magazine was interesting, you’d already called across the office to them to say so.

Very quickly, then, conversations were started up by staff solely to get something moving. All three magazines included columns answering reader questions and all the online forums did too, so we were encouraged to ask technical questions. It wasn’t directly stated that you had to use pseudonyms but it was a bit obvious: you couldn’t be represented in one forum as a great technology expert and in the next be asking how to spell “Excel”.

All I did that was apparently unusual is that I created two pseudonyms. Just the names: you’re used to threads on Facebook and Twitter now where there are photo profiles but this was before all that, this was solely text. Not even a bio.

Yes, I used Susan Hare for one. But remember, I really like her so I made her contributions to the forum be as witty and clever as I am capable of: I would take twenty minutes to craft a comment from her.

And with my drama head on, if you’ve got one smart woman character, it felt natural to have a dumb man one. Nothing to do with any gender comment or opinion, just the need to explore a range and having only two characters to play with.

I can’t remember his name. But I can remember that I used to spend even longer writing his comments because I made him illiterate. He was both illiterate and a very, very bad typist.

The thing is, though, this was in a forum answering technology problems so I gave both of my characters identical trouble.

I think this took place over several weeks and it was damn hard to have them take answers from editors and somehow not quite solve their problem, to have them come back for more help.

But initially both characters got lots of attention. People on staff and just readers passing by would do their best to help them equally.

After a while, though, that changed. In the end, the only person even talking to my dumb man character was the editor of the magazine and he was trying so hard but you could see he wanted to weep.

Whereas over with Susan Hare, this fast and clever and funny woman, everybody piled in to help at first – and everybody stayed to the end. Discussions with her were getting to be ten and twenty times longer than the ones with my poor sap with precisely the same technology difficulties.

I keep mentioning the end because there was one. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t really plan any of this: I just created two characters to see what wold happen.

Until one lunchtime I was in the office kitchen where that editor was talking with a friend about the forums. And these two men were concluding that Susan Hare fancied the editor. They were serious. And they thought she was too.

If I actually fancied him, I would tell you now and I’d have told him then. If Susan had set out to make him think anything of the sort, I wouldn’t have a story to tell you now. But she didn’t. There was not one word that ever implied any interest outside her technical problem, not a single one.

You’re not surprised. But back then, I’m guessing early 1990s, I really was. I’d created this funny, sparky character who had come alive and that made me proud. These male editors and, it turns out, plenty of other men on the forum, had projected fancying onto her. That made me embarrassed to be male.

But I like to think Susan and I have put this behind us. We don’t talk so much anymore but, as I say, she doesn’t exist. Still, Susan Hare: many happy returns.

TV got better when I stopped reviewing it

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Once I left BBC Ceefax and when my Radio Times work became more news and less reviews, I felt that television drama and comedy took a lurch upwards.

Just saying this to you now makes me think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where if you measure something’s location, you affect its speed and vice versa.

But really all that happened, all that changed was that I no longer had to watch to the end of rubbish shows. So now I was only seeing series that I enjoyed.

Still, there is a thing about being required to watch TV and specifically to be required to watch to the end. Usually it’s a good thing, too, although again as my fingers type this to you my head has just flashed back to Harbour Lights. That was a 1999/2000 BBC drama by many good writers but you didn’t watch it. You can now: it’s on YouTube.

I watched it back before YouTube was imaginable. I remember this night so particularly clearly because I was trying to get ahead one week and this was the big launch, this was the big new show, clearly it was going to be the one reviewed and I had the tape right there. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened next but some other show get that night’s review slot and you are now reading the first words I’ve ever written about Harbour Lights.

But then there are the shows I probably wouldn’t have watched, might not have got around to watching, or wouldn’t have caught until years later.

I’m thinking of three of them.

Some time around 2003, I think it was, two DVDs with the Battlestar Galactica mini series came in to the Radio Times office. This is a TV show but it was funded by Sky and that broadcaster decided to put it out first on its movie channels. So RT wasn’t going to review it as television and the film team had already written a dismissive 50-word description broadly saying how rubbish television is compared to movies.

Then for some other reason I never knew, Sky delayed airing the movie. So those disks lay there on a desk for a week or more until one night when I was coming home to Birmingham by coach and had nothing to watch. You’re thinking I took those disks and loved them, but you’d be wrong.

I took one of the disks and was furious at myself because it was going to be a week before I could get the second.

Then let me take you back again to VHS tapes. I used to get piles of VHS tapes from the broadcasters and I particularly enjoyed going to collect them from the BBC Previews Department. Great people, I liked them tremendously, and on the supremely circuitous route you had to walk from Ceefax to their office, you went through the scenery bay where they kept the TARDIS.

This was long before Doctor Who came back and the new show built its own police box so this old one was just left there from affection. Plus you could store so much inside it.

I definitely got the Harbour Lights tape from them and just looking up air dates now, I think it’s possible that in the same week Channel 4 sent me Queer as Folk.

I don’t remember if I watched them on the same night. I do remember staying over in London in some B&B that had a TV set and a video. I remember being dog-tired. I remember being rather hungry. And I can see something like six VHS tapes in a pile that felt like the most enormous slog to get through.

Until I popped Queer as Folk in.

There’s a story that the first scene of Queer as Folk was coming across as a bit serious, that its tone was setting up the show to not feel the way it should. So an extra scene was written, shot and inserted at the start of the episode. It’s Craig Kelly as Vince talking to camera about one night out on Manchester’s gay scene and concludes with a description of a man who “has every episode of Juliet Bravo on tape”.

It’s fast and funny and booms you into the series – and I didn’t need a word of it because I was already grabbed. I tell you, I can vividly recall sitting up as the title sequence started. I just watched it again now and there is a verve, a call to action, a delighted energy in the music and that was it. A dog-tired, hungry slog of an evening was now great.

The music was by Murray Gold, the series was written by Russell T Davies, produced by Nicola Schindler and the first episode directed by Charles McDougall.

Can I tell you one more? Because it’s the reason I’m remembering all of these shows this week. For twenty years ago on 6 June 1998, Sex and the City began.

That’s the original US air date and apparently Channel 4 first aired it here in 1999. I know it’s not from the same night’s reviewing as Harbour Lights and Queer as Folk because I can remember the different hotel room.

And I can remember having only it to watch. If I hadn’t, if I’d got other shows to get through, I’d have got through them. Because I didn’t think episode 1 of Sex and the City was good at all.

Whereas episode 2, Models and Mortals, was great. Both the first two were written by series creator Darren Star but I thought then that pilot was heavy handed and this next one flew. There’s got to be an issue of how I knew the characters going in to episode 2 but still, pilots are hugely difficult and I don’t think this one worked.

So there’s a lesson for us both. Watch every episode of everything because it might turn out to be brilliant. There you go.